A Practical Guide to Orchestra Survival

September 21, 2023, 5:21 PM · It’s the beginning of the school year for many and the beginning of a new artistic season for all of us. With the return of school, youth, community, and professional orchestras comes a new workload for busy musicians and the question: How do I learn all of this music?

Youth Orchestra
Me playing in the now-defunct McLean Orchestra.

I’ve been working with several of my students who are in an orchestra for the very first time this year, and here is the advice I have been giving them. Hopefully some of this is helpful for you too!

1. Obtain recordings of your orchestra music.

The pedagogue Edmund Sprunger once said, "Listening is the closest thing we have to magic." The second you get your orchestra repertoire list, make a playlist for yourself that includes multiple recordings of each piece, if possible, and listen daily. If you’re a Suzuki student and already have a daily listening habit, add in your orchestra music to this. If listening is new for you, try pairing listening with something else - the commute to school or work, doing homework, cleaning around the house, eating a meal, or even in the background while scrolling on the phone.

Why listen? Listening will familiarize your brain and your ear not only with the sound of your own part, but also with the sound of the whole orchestra. It will fast-track your learning and ease your practicing because you already will know what the music is supposed to sound like. Listening also will make rehearsals go better because you know what to expect from the other sections.

2. Write fingerings and bowings into your part as early as possible.

Depending on orchestra librarians and section leaders, it may not be possible to get final bowings during initial rehearsals, but it’s a good thing to prioritize having a neat and correct piece of music in front of you.

Always have a pencil at rehearsal! Keep up-to-date on changes that the concertmaster or section leader makes to bowings, and mark in instructions from the conductor regarding tempo, dynamics, phrasing, etc. Write in tricky fingerings - the rules for this are: if you are sitting on the outside, write over the notes, if you are sitting on the inside, write below. If you miss a note or bowing - especially if it is more than once - write in a reminder. Stay on top of bowings, accidentals, key changes, tempo changes, fingerings, etc.

3. Craft a practice plan that is firmly grounded in reality.

I once had a student who played through all of their orchestra music every day and was becoming exhausted as a result. Luckily, the parent brought this to my attention, so we talked about prioritizing different sections of music.

First, set a limit on how much time will be devoted to orchestra music, so that it doesn't completely take over your other goals for musical growth. Then identify pieces and sections that need the most practice and focus your time and attention on those. When it comes to easier pieces and sections, spend less practice time on those. It sounds simple, but this does require consciously categorizing different passages in your orchestra music. Here are some categories to consider:

If you’re not sure about how to categorize your orchestra music for practice, talk to your private teacher if you have one, or someone else you trust who knows your playing.

4. Increase your playing time gradually, and make a plan to take care of your body.

Practicing at home, when you can take breaks as much as you want, is very different from sitting in orchestra rehearsal for multiple hours. Also, if you’ve only been practicing 30 minutes a few days a week, then suddenly you increase your practice time to manage your orchestra repertoire, this is a recipe for injury. It can be tempting to cram practice into one long session (especially if your conductor is really demanding a high standard of playing right way), but prioritize your physical well-being. If you have reached your physical threshold for practicing, there are other things you can do: listen to a recording and follow along with your sheet music. Categorize every section of music, and plan which days you’ll practice which ones.

It’s also important to warm up your body before you start playing. A few suggestions include:

Talk to your teacher or do some research on health for musicians to learn more.

Wishing everyone an exciting, healthy, and musical season of orchestra!

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September 22, 2023 at 01:01 PM ·

I've just recently begun a fall season as a 2nd violinist with our local Hillsboro (Ore) Symphony Orchestra. Very nice group of capable musicians. Lots of strings.

They're celebrating their 20th season (2 seasons earlier), and we'll be premiering a commissioned orchestral work. Very cool!

One nice thing about the coming season, we'll have lots of rehearsals. (I find this to be typical of community orchestras with which I've played.)

Thank you for your suggestions and for including the link to Orchestral Etiquette. Excellent photograph, by the way.

September 22, 2023 at 04:23 PM · good post, thanks!

September 24, 2023 at 06:55 PM · For inexperienced orchestra players, you do not have to play all the notes. Just be aware of the rests. Too simple?

September 25, 2023 at 05:25 PM · One of the perks of being in a string section is the option to "fake it." Imagine trying to do that as a flautist or oboist!

September 28, 2023 at 08:54 PM · In addition to marking bowings, fingerings, etc. on my score, I also put a big X next to sections that I know will need extra practice. At home I can look for those X sections and give them the time they need. Sometimes it's just a matter of finding a different position that works better. It's helping me get over my fear of 2nd and 4th position.

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